Adult Learning Theory and Distance Education

Adult learning theory is a useful concept to understand when looking at online learning environments because it helps the instructor to “understand their students and to design more meaningful learning experiences for them” (Frey, Webreck Alman, 2003, p. 8). Most adult learning theories were developed before distance online education became a reality, however there are four theorists that are relevant today for the online learning environment, two of who are Knowles (1980) and Cross (1981) (Frey, Webreck Alman, 2003, p. 8).

Malcolm Knowles is the most prominent adult learning theorist, and his theory of andragogy is defined as “the art and science of helping adults learn” (Knowles et al., 1998, p.61). His learning theory is applied to distance online education because it is based on the learner’s own control, flexibility and feedback (Frey, Webreck Alman, 2003, p. 8), and online learning is much more conducive to learner autonomy than traditional classrooms in the sense that whether asynchronous or synchronous, the learner has much more control of when and where to complete their coursework. Flexibility is a key attribute to consider when looking at online learning environments.

Much like Knowles, Cross’ (1981) framework for adult learning is also based on flexibility and it is demonstrated through the Characteristics of the Adult Learners model (CAL). Her model identifies “two classes of variables: personal characteristics and situational characteristics. The personal characteristics include aging, life stages, and developmental stages. The situational characteristics include part-time/full-time learning and voluntary/compulsory learning. Throughout their lives, adults have varying degrees of readiness and ability for learning” (Frey, Webreck Alman, 2003, p. 8). With Cross’ framework in mind, online learning offers individualized, self-paced learning and flexible access to information and resources for adults who are dealing with personal and situational characteristics. The concept of distance education itself, “was founded on the principles of flexible access…and it aimed to allow distance learners, who were generally adult learners in full or part-time employment to be able to study at a time, place, and pace that suited their convenience” (Naidu, 2003, p. 4).

Adult learning theory is relevant to this discussion of distance education because it narrows down the effects of online learning to just mature learners. The situational and personal characteristics that Cross (1981) describes are specific to adult learners, and online education is continuing to develop techniques to cater to these uniques needs that adult learners have.



Cross, K.P. (1981). Adults as learners. SanFrancisco: Jossey Bass.

Frey, Barbara, & Webreck Alman, Susan. (2003). New Horizons in Adult Education. In Literacy Works, 17 (1) 4-12.

Knowles, M.S., Holton III, E.F. & Swanson, R.A. (1998). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Co.

Knowles, M.S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. New York: Cambridge Books.

Naidu, Som. (2003). Commonwealth of Learning. Retrieved from


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